An intrinsic element of musical tradition in Portugal – fado is a form of melancholic song that characterises the heart of Portuguese culture. Sarah Gilbert visits the streets of Lisbon's Alfama neighbourhood in search of the spirit of fado.

Museu do Fado

"Fadista Ana Moura once said she had saudade over not having saudade," Dalila laughed, "We Portuguese are never satisfied."

I was on a tour of the dusky pink Museu do Fado in Alfama, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Lisbon. Its maze of steep and narrow alleyways is the cradle of fado – literally fate, Portugal's answer to the blues, poetry set to mournful yet stirring music.

The essence of fado is saudade, a Portuguese word with no English equivalent, a feeling of longing or nostalgia for something, or someone. The exact origins of fado are unknown – perhaps it was brought to Lisbon by sailors or African slaves, or inspired by Moorish flamenco or Brazilian song – but it's been traced back to the streets of the city's poorest neighbourhoods in the early nineteenth century.

The museum's archival items and audiovisual exhibits chart fado's history, from brothels and radio shows to censorship under Salazar's dictatorship, its post-revolution fall from grace and its resurgence in the 1990s when a new generation of musicians, such as Mariza, put fado back on the international music map, and promoted its 2011 addition to UNESCO's list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Museu do Fado, Alfama, LisbonMuseu do Fado, Lisbon © Sarah Gilbert

Listen to fado in Lisbon

I was told the best way to experience live fado performance in Lisbon is to visit an adega, a restaurant-cum-fado club, and a more informal tasca. So that evening, I headed to Alfama's legendary Clube de Fado, all vaulted ceilings, stone columns and Moorish arches.

The venue was founded in 1995 by renowned Portuguese guitarist, Mario Pacheco, who has played with and written music for the finest fadistas. I recognised his moustachioed face from one of the walls of fame I had seen earlier that day in the museum.

"Setting up the club was a labour of love," he told me, "I wanted to give fado back its dignity. We employ the finest musicians and the most honest singers, and our performance doesn't make any concessions for tourists, we treat everyone as if they're Portuguese."

At around 9.30pm, the lights dimmed, the room was bathed in red light and the crowd fell silent as the show began. Pacheco was on the 12-string Portuguese guitar – which has a mournful song all its own, a second musician hunched over his Spanish guitar lost in the music, and a third plucking a double bass.

Ana Maria stood in between them dressed in traditional black. She put her head back and as her deep, throaty voice soared around the room, expressing the agony and ecstasy of love and loss, the atmosphere was electric.

Between sets, red-aproned waiters squeezed between the tightly packed tables serving simple dishes, but it's the music that's the undisputed star of the show here. By 2am and the final set, the crowd had thinned out. As the singer reached a spine-tingling crescendo, I could feel saudade wash over me.

Nearby, a Japanese tourist sat with tears streaming down her face. "Do you speak Portuguese?" I whispered, and she shook her head.

Neither did I, but what did it matter? The sheer emotion of fado transcends all language barriers.

Clube de Fado, Lisbon © Sarah Gilbert

Experience fado

Keen to learn more about the birthplace of fado, the following day I explored the back streets of Lisbon on a walking tour with Lisboa Autentica. We started in the old Moorish quarter of Mouraria, north of Alfama, where washing flutters from lines strung across the tall, narrow buildings and neighbours treat each other like family, offering support and sharing gossip.

Outside the church of the Capela de Nossa Senhora da Saude – which gets an honourable mention in several traditional fados – our guide Mafalda explained that this multicultural neighbourhood of old Lisbon, formerly home to sailors, criminals and prostitutes, was where it all began. Fado was originally sung in the streets, chronicling tales of the trials and triumphs of everyday life, harking back to medieval travelling troubadours who spread news through music.

Ruca Fernandes, a young fado singer dressed in a sombre black suit, accompanied our small group. As we stopped in front of a photograph of the legendary Amalia Rodrigues or at a hole-in-the-wall bar where we toasted fado with a shot of ginjinha, Portugal's sour cherry liqueur, he would sing for us, and passing Lisboetas stopped to listen.

"If you're happy, how do you get into the fado zone?" I asked him as we walked.

"I'm Portuguese, I'm always in the zone," he replied, with a wistful smile.

Ruca Fernandes singing on the Lisboa Autentica fado tour, AlfamaRuca Fernandes singing on the Lisboa Autentica fado tour, Alfama © Sarah Gilbert

Tasca do Chico

Our tour ended at Tasca do Chico, a cupboard-sized tavern in Alfama where you're never sure who's going to show up to sing under the football scarves festooned from the ceiling.

A tasca is the place for fado vadio – vagabond fado – where everyone from veteran fadistas to aspiring amateurs can take the microphone.

We squeezed on to a communal wooden table and Mafalda ordered red wine and chouriço assadoa, a spicy sausage that's cooked over an open flame on the bar, while I studied the walls, plastered in peeling posters and faded photographs of some of the tasca's most distinguished guests.

Ruca was invited to sing and stood between the two guitarists, within arm's reach of the audience. As they strummed the opening riff, he closed his eyes and began a timeless ode to Alfama.

It was a lively fado that soon had us all clapping along – a reminder that, whatever life throws at you, there's always something worth celebrating.

Tasca do Chico, Alfama, LisbonTasca do Chico, Lisbon © Sarah Gilbert


Sarah stayed at the Memmo Alfama Hotel (doubles from £122 per night B&B), which offers free daily walking tours around Alfama. TAP Air Portugal (0345 601 0932) flies direct from London City Airport, Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester to Lisbon up to 12 times a day, with one-way fares from £43. For more information see Visit Lisboa. Top image: Washing hanging in Alfama, Lisbon © Sarah Gilbert


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